Saturday 1 October 2016

Saunders following in dad's footsteps on the road to glory with Ireland

John Fallon

Published 23/06/2016 | 02:30

Connacht coach Pat Lam with the Philips Manager of the Month award for May. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy
Connacht coach Pat Lam with the Philips Manager of the Month award for May. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Niall Saunders has spent all of his 18-and-a-half years living in Cobham in south-east London, has just signed a two-year deal with Harlequins, but there was never a doubt who he would play his international rugby with if he got the opportunity.

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His dad Rob had the distinction of captaining Ireland on his debut aged just 22, and the latest Saunders scrum-half is also a young man in a hurry.

Saunders, who will be underage for next year's World Rugby U-20 Championship in Georgia and only misses out on being eligible for the following year by 11 days, said the notion of declaring for Saturday's final opponents England never entered his head.

"Never ever. I feel I am Irish. My whole family is Irish, Irish blood. Ever since I can remember I have always wanted to play for Ireland, always since I have touched a rugby ball."

The fact that they are playing England in the final at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday doesn't overly perturb Saunders.

"I am excited about that obviously. To us it's a final, it doesn't matter who we play. It's just another game for us. The momentum has built up, seven from seven now."

He knows most of the English players, having played with or against them at various age-grades with Harlequins, while he also captained Epsom College this year.

He cites Harlequins' offer of a two-year academy contract as the highlight of his career so far and he's really enjoying his rugby there.

"It's a great set-up, I have been there since I was about 13-years-old, coming through the age-groups.

"I have played with most of the English lads through Quins, playing in the Junior Premiership," added Saunders.

His dad Rob burst on the scene when he was handed the captaincy on his debut in 1991 against France in the Six Nations when he won the first of a dozen caps which included the World Cup that year.

Rob Saunders was born in Nottingham to Scottish parents, but he grew up in Belfast after his parents took up lecturing posts at University of Ulster, Jordanstown.

The scrum-half moved to London and played for London Irish and will be in attendance on Saturday for the final.

"He was away for the Georgia match which I was starting so he never got to see me play in the nine shirt. He is back now and the extended family is coming over for the match."

Niall has enjoyed the championship in Manchester, on and off the field, and he says the spirit that is in the camp is one of the main reasons for their success.

"We got the chemistry just right, the balance of when we are on we are on, there is no messing about. When we are off, there is a bit of messing about, when you get a camp with 20 lads there isn't going to be quiet time.

"We went to Alton Towers for an afternoon and that was great, great to get away, switch off from rugby and settle the nerves a bit going into that semi-final. A few of the boys were a bit nervous but to switch off from the rugby was nice."

Having skippered Epsom College, moved up the ladder with Quins and now experienced a superb run at a World Cup with Ireland, it's no wonder Saunders is loving his rugby. "I just want to enjoy my rugby wherever I go, just enjoy it."

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